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They have a baby. They have a baby right now. Lois sees the headline in her mind, too big and bold for even the front page of the Planet. No, for this announcement they'll need to rent a billboard. BABY HERE - RIGHT NOW.

Thank God for Clark's parents and Lois' parents, all four of them taking turns gently but tirelessly snatching the baby out of each others' arms for some cuddle time because Lois' legs are shaking, her arms are shaking, her hands are numb. She is not ready. "This child is yours," she bursts out, startling Clark, who's been sitting next to her on the couch clutching her hands and saying comforting things for half an hour now. "What does it mean, Clark? What kind of idiot leaves a note with a baby but doesn't put any answers in the note? Why say anything if it's going to be useless and cryptic!?"

Clark swallows hard. "It's not that vague, though. Is it? I mean, the traditional, 'please take care of my baby' is vague. Sure-- for a day, a week, twenty years? Who knows? 'This child is yours,' though. Seems... pretty straightforward."

That makes sense. Oh no, that makes sense. Lois nods emphatically, hoping the rest of it will fall into place somehow. "Right. Okay. Fine. So, who brought the baby? Time travel? New Kryptonians? Did you wish it? Did I wish it? Have you touched a monkey's paw or a magic lamp lately? Oh my God, what is my life?"

Clark just squeezes her hands a little tighter and doesn't say anything. The panic is at its high point. It'll start rolling back now. Won't it? It usually does. And they can handle this. Right? So what if they weren't ready. So what if they have nothing a baby needs and Lois knows nothing about babies, so what if they didn't have a chance to take classes or read books or-- or-- childproof anything-- So what?

Lois knows herself: she puts on such a brave front because she gets hurt so easily. She and Clark are so alike in that way. They put off admitting their feelings to each other, they put off pursuing each other for YEARS, because they were both scared. Because they didn't want to risk losing what they had. And for Lois, a baby (the idea of a baby) was more of the same. One more thing she was one hundred percent fully invested in not being invested in because-- well, because of exactly what happened, because up until half an hour ago the universe wasn't going to allow them to be parents, and no matter what Lois' wonderful, gorgeous, understanding, wise husband said about love-- well, love didn't just magic up a baby from thin air. Or did it? DID IT?

Okay, that was the last bump of panic. Lois takes a deep breath. "We have a baby."

"Yup," Clark says. Lois shakes her head at him. She can see right through him. He's just as scared as she is. Which means they've got to take turns being the one who's not scared. Clark's been on it since they found the baby (their baby). Their baby. Okay. Time for Lois to step up.

"This actually might be a good thing," she says, trying to sound convincing. "Just getting thrown into the deep end. No more waffling. We have a baby now. Day One. Parents. Mom and Dad."

"Oh my God," Clark says, so quietly she almost can't hear him. He takes his hands off hers and clenches them into trembling fists. "We-- we don't have a room ready for the baby. We didn't take classes. I mean, they teach classes, don't they? I was thinking we'd have--"

"Nope, nope, nope. Forget all that. Step one," Lois says decisively, keeping her voice low. She puts her hand on Clark's wrist and waits until he looks up at her, his eyes huge and dark. "Baby names."

"We didn't decide on names!" Clark realizes, panicking, and it looks like Lois took the wheel just in time.

"Yeah," she says, "not that big a deal, she can always change it to something cooler when she's a teenager, you know, and hates us."

"When she's a teenager!" Clark's eyes go even wider. He's obviously thinking WAY too far ahead. That's so Clark: start at the end and work back. Well, sometimes the end is too far ahead to start from. Sometimes you have to start at the beginning. She's been trying to tell him that for years. "Lois, what if-- What if she--"

"First things first," Lois insists. "Baby names! I've been thinking, do you know any good names from Krypton? I mean, that would work as an Earth name too?" She actually came up with that just now, but it's a good idea. Give Clark a task to handle and he puts his head down and gets right to it. That's another way they're alike.

He dips his head, looking back into his memories. "When Zara and the other New Kryptonians were here, I looked up my genealogy. You know my mother's name was Lara?"

It's not terrible, but it's not perfect. "Lara Lane Kent," Lois tries. "Too many L's maybe?"

"I had two aunts, Alura and Astra--" Clark says, and Lois bites her lip, not wanting to insult Clark's dead relatives, even if he doesn't remember them, but Alura, wow. "--and, you know, there were some pictures of my cousin Kara, and I think I might actually remember her a little? She used to babysit me." Clark blinks. "She was nice. I think."

"Kara Lane Kent." Lois mulls it over. Not too traditional, not too trendy, not too cutesy. She tries to picture it as a byline. SUPERWOMAN SAVES METROPOLIS, by Kara Lane Kent, staff reporter, Daily Planet... Not that she has little Kara's life all planned out for her or anything. Definitely not. Just something to keep in mind.

"You know what?" she says, "I like it." She stands up, pulling Clark to his feet. Across the room, Jonathan is cuddling the baby to his chest. Lois walks over and holds out her arms, and Jonathan hands her over, settling her carefully, carefully into Lois' arms. The baby snuggles into the cloth of Lois' robe. She's asleep, the little precious, and how much trouble could something so small be, anyway? Lois doesn't even know now why she was so worried. "Do you look like a Kara? You do to me," she whispers, and turns to Clark. He takes her in his arms, so that Kara is cradled between them. "Welcome to the family, Kara," Lois says, and looks up at Clark. "Welcome to the beginning of our family."

Clark swallows hard, and leans in, his forehead brushing against Lois' hair as he adds his own welcome. "Hey, new kid?" he whispers, and starts to smile. "Welcome to the team. I think we're going to get along just fine..."

 


TWO AND A HALF YEARS AGO

 


 It all happened so fast. Clark knew that was no excuse, but still. One minute everything was fine-- well, fine-ish. A mob of violent gangsters resurrected from death by mad science were about to rob the illegal gambling club stuffed with Metropolis elites, but on the bright side, Lois had just ordered him to go find a phone and call the police, giving Clark the chance to sneak off and change into his costume. But before he had the chance, a trio of bullets thudded dully into his chest. Which wasn't a new experience, or wouldn't have been, except that it was Clark Kent getting shot, not Superman. After what seemed like a year, he remembered to stagger. Stumbling back into Lois' arms, he fell heavily, sliding through her grip and down to the floor. He closed his eyes, maybe too soon, but he couldn't look into Lois' eyes as she lost him. As he left her. Even as he fell his mind was racing, reflexes shouting, but what could he do? All these people, staring and whispering to each other, in horror and in shock: "Isn't that Lois Lane and her partner?" "Clark something-- from the Planet?"

"Joey, pick up the stiff!" Capone's order cut through the chaos, and Clark let himself go limp. He stopped breathing as they dragged him away.

Lois called after him, breaking down in tears as she shouted his name-- "Clark! Clark!"

Staying still was the hardest thing he'd ever had to do.

He felt numb. It was easy to let them manhandle him out of the club, into the back seat of the car. Easy to not even tense as they tossed his body into a dark alley.

He'd been through this before. More than once. The last time had been in Ecuador. He'd been making his way down the coast, chasing a story about pre-colonial wooden sculptures smuggled from one resort town on the Pacific coast to the next. He'd known the region was prone to earthquakes, he'd known that, but he'd had a late night and the shaking started early. Jolted out of a rare deep sleep, he'd stared, confused, at his hotel's shadowed ceiling for maybe two or three unforgivable seconds before his hearing refocused on the kids, screaming in terror as their school started to collapse.

No one had seen him leave his hotel-- how could they have? He'd rushed, a blur, down to the basement of the blue school building nestled up against the hillside. He'd steadied and reinforced its supports, desperately using his x-ray vision to watch as the teachers got all the kids out.

And then the building came down on top of him. Along with half the hillside. It hadn't hurt, not at first. But he was stuck in an uncomfortable position and couldn't even twist around without causing the rubble to shift, and after a while, even Clark's muscles started to ache.

By that time the whole area was full of people, everyone spilling out into the streets-- emergency services and police and panicked parents rushing to collect their children. One dusty but unharmed journalist exploding out from under a thousand or so cinderblocks would've been the front page of every paper in South America. Maybe even worldwide. And, even if it wasn't dangerous to the emergency workers, it would be way more visibility than Clark had ever been comfortable with. He thought about trying to tunnel down and come out somewhere else, but wasn't sure that was a good idea-- what if he set off an aftershock and caused more destruction?

As soon as it was dark, he managed to eel his way out from under the building without making too much of a disturbance. But halfway across town, his hotel had collapsed into a pile of rubble, and Clark's penchant for sleeping in late had been well noted by the staff. He'd been counted among the dead, listed in the paper-- what was there to do but skip town?

He didn't just skip town, though. He ended up in China. And he stayed there, moving around just like before, chasing stories and filing them with whatever local paper or wire service would take them. He hated abandoning the story about the Ecuadorian sculptures, but he'd been so scared of facing any questions about himself or his abilities. He didn't have any answers, and it wasn't like he'd had a home there; just some luggage. He hadn't even unpacked. Just like every other time someone had started asking questions, just like every other time someone had gotten a little too invested. It had always been easier to-- just run.

He didn't know where else to go, so he went back to Mom and Dad's and stayed out of sight. With no body, even with Lois as a witness, it would take a little while before he was officially declared dead, so now... he had all the time in the world, time to do nothing. Time to mostly spend hiding out down in the cellar, wearing Dad's old clothes, while Mom puttered around relabeling jars of preserves.

Clark was pretty sure none of the labels actually needed to be updated, and she was just keeping him company. He didn't mind. For some reason the cellar felt a lot smaller than he remembered it being when he was a kid. Even sitting on the floor and tipping his head back, to look up through the house at the blue skies above, didn't really help. He could feel the weight of the earth around him, pressing down on him, trapping him...

"Do you think it would it be suspicious if Superman moved on to some other city?" he asked, glancing over at his mother. "I mean, so soon after the death of Clark Kent?"

Martha put down her labelmaker, frowning. "But honey, you don't have to. You could still see Lois, and your friends, if you stayed..."

"I know, Mom, we talked about that. It's just, I don't know if I can stand it, to stay and be treated like-- well, like Superman, and not like Clark."

"Is it really so bad to be treated like Superman?" she asked. But of course she couldn't understand. Who could?

"He's not real, Mom. He can't... hold down a job, or have friends, or be in a relationship, and that's the whole reason-- you know." He left the rest unsaid, but they both knew what he wasn't saying. It was the whole reason he'd decided to settle down in one place to begin with. Because he'd wanted that kind of life. "Maybe it would be a good idea to get a fresh start somewhere else. I could just start by moving around more, like I used to. There's no reason I have to stay in one city all the time, is there?"

"But you know Metropolis so well now," Martha protested. "That's what makes you so good at what you do. And I'm not just talking about flying around in a cape, Clark."

"Now that I think about it," Clark mused, "maybe it doesn't have to be coincidence; I mean, Clark Kent dying and Superman leaving Metropolis, both around the same time. It might actually be a good cover story."

"You mean, Superman decides to leave because he feels guilty and regretful that he couldn't save you," Mom said, always the first to get caught up in a good story. "I suppose so. People do know you two are friends. But, Clark..."

"Mom, I know you don't like it. I don't like it either. But maybe this was always bound to happen. Maybe it was always just a pipe dream, to think I could have all that-- normal stuff. A normal life."

"Oh, sweetie, no--" Martha protested, her hand pressed to her heart, and Clark got to his feet quickly, putting his hands on her shoulders.

"I'm not sorry I tried, Mom. This time I've had in Metropolis, it's been amazing. I've learned so much. Maybe this is just one more thing to learn. That I have to keep moving."

"Not forever, though?" Martha protested.

Clark sighed, put his arms around her and hugged her tight. At least he didn't have to look her in the eyes-- she'd always been able to tell when he was fibbing. "No, Mom, of course not. I mean, probably not. Not forever."

He stayed in the cellar for the rest of the afternoon. Mom and Dad's neighbors had started to trickle over in twos and threes as they heard the news, bringing casseroles and comfort. Dad was uncomfortable with all the attention and spent most of his time in the fields. Mom just kept insisting that there had to be some mistake, but bursting into tears in the middle of it. Clark hadn't known she was such a good actor.

Even though he could have zipped past a houseful of guests at superspeed, Clark waited until dark before heading back to Metropolis, in costume as Superman. He just needed to clean out his extra costumes from Clark's secret closet, and maybe nail up the door. Everything else, all his books and his souvenirs, the tie Jimmy had gotten him for his birthday, the event programs, the pictures... He couldn't take any of it. He could always get more stuff. But this had to be a clean break. If Lois came over before the place was cleaned out, and anything was missing, she'd--

Clark stopped suddenly, hovering in the air over his balcony. It was a moonlit night, no need for x-ray vision. He could see straight into his apartment, to his couch, where Lois was lying on her side, curled around... one of Clark's suit jackets? He shook his head, trying to ward off his instinctive urge to listen in to whatever he was looking at, but his hearing had already keyed in on Lois, and her sobs tore at his heart. He drifted closer, trying to convince himself: it wasn't suspicious, was it? Him showing up like this. He could console her, take her in his arms, tell her Clark had died a hero, chasing a story, exactly what he'd always wanted-- but it would be a cheat. The worst kind of betrayal, to take Lois in his arms on this night of all nights, pretend to be her friend and her supporter, and lie to her about Clark being dead. Knowing that he could wipe away her tears in an instant just by telling her the truth.

For a moment his heart, his soul, his whole body yearned to do just that, but he knew he couldn't. He sighed, drifting slowly down into the alley underneath his kitchen window, leaning back against a dumpster and hunching down into the shadows.

He couldn't, not now. He'd caused Lois this pain and he didn't deserve to be seen in her eyes as a hero or a friend. And as much as every impulse was telling him to, he couldn't come out and give her the truth either. It was too late for that too. He'd had terrifying aspirations of telling her someday (possibly, maybe, under the right circumstances) but right now, tonight? What would be the point? One final goodbye, to make things even more painful and deny Lois any sense of closure, forever? He could just hear himself now, reeling it all out in that smug Superman voice. "Hey Lois, I'm not dead, but I've been lying to you for years and now I've got to continue faking my own death. I'll be starting a new life somewhere else. You can't come. Bye!"

No-- even if she'd wanted to come along with him, he couldn't imagine tearing Lois out of her life the way Clark had been torn out of his. She'd worked too hard for every part of it; she didn't deserve to be dragged out of normal human existence just because Clark couldn't be a normal human any more. And he'd be asking her to go against her journalistic instincts as well, forever suppressing the story of the century. He'd sometimes had nightmares of normal mornings, picking up the newspaper from the front stoop, and unfolding it to see the headline, CLARK KENT IS SUPERMAN. He hadn't thought there could be anything worse, but he realized now that it could be CLARK KENT WAS SUPERMAN. No, he couldn't do that to Lois. As hard as it was, there was nothing he could do. He was helpless. He just-- had to let it be, even though his ears seemed to have permanently keyed into Lois' sobs. Clark could hear each one as if he were an inch away from her on that couch, and every one was stabbing him in the heart.

The back door that led out to the alley jerked open with a screech, and Clark jerked in surprise, straightening up as his landlord, an older, balding man in a worn cardigan, stepped out onto the low stoop. For a moment, they looked at each other in surprise, and then the older man shrugged and jerked his head up towards Clark's balcony.

"She's been in there a couple hours," Clark's landlord said hoarsely, and Clark nodded wordlessly, shifting with an effort into the confident body language of Superman. "I let her in. She said she needed some notes and things for work... I didn't think there'd be any harm," he continued, his voice low.

"No, I... Probably not," Clark said, and his landlord relaxed. Everyone was always so uptight about Superman, always worried he was going to scold them for jaywalking or littering. Well, so sometimes he scolded people, but only about important things, like driver safety, and anyway--

"Were they, you know..." Clark's landlord began.

"They were-- They were close. It was complicated," Clark began, and his landlord waved him off, shaking his head. Clark helpfully lifted the lid of the dumpster, and his landlord tossed the black trash bag in awkwardly.

"Don't suppose it matters now. Ah, he was a nice kid." He sighed, and Clark blinked. He'd never thought his landlord thought of him as anything but a weirdo. "I mean, kind of a weirdo," the older man went on. "Mailed his rent check late more than a few times, always making the strangest noises at odd hours, banging that window open and shut, running the hot water out... But a good kid. Poor kid. Poor Ms. Lane." He shook his head mournfully.

"I just wish there was something I could do," Clark blurted. "But I don't think there is anything."

"Hey-- if you could bring people back from the dead," the landlord said with a fatalistic shrug, and Clark's eyes went wide.

Bring people back from the dead. Like Al Capone, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow... Why hadn't he thought of it? He'd just given up, when the answer was staring him in the face the whole time!

"What, can you?" Clark's landlord said, eyeing him suspiciously.

"No," Clark said, fighting to remain impassive, fighting the urge to spin out of Superman's costume into Clark's clothes and slam open his front door and take Lois in his arms, right now-- "But I might know a guy."

He took off into the sky. All he had to do was find Dr. Hamilton's lab! Maybe Lois was right when she dinged him about starting from the end, rather than the beginning. If you started from the end, you started with a foregone conclusion and worked your way towards it, with no way off the path you'd set out for yourself. Maybe he'd been too afraid for too long. Maybe he'd just assumed this was as good as it was ever going to get. And maybe this experiment in living a normal life wasn't doomed after all. Maybe all he had to do was start over.

From the beginning.

 


A YEAR AND A HALF BEFORE THAT

 


Lois leans over the new guy's shoulder as he settles his notes next to his computer, fires up Word Processing, and starts typing up the follow-up story about the colonists, all safely aboard the space station for several days now and beginning to settle in to their new lives. "What are you doing," she hisses in his ear, but he doesn't jump. "What are you doing? You're starting at the end!"

"The end has to be the strongest part. I always start at the end," the new guy says, mule-stubborn and mule-stupid, too.

"Ridiculous," Lois says, and she's not just saying it to pick on the new guy. It IS ridiculous. "If you start at the end, then it's too easy! The story becomes rote: you know exactly where it's going, and when people read it, it feels predictable. Plus how will you ever let the story surprise you? How will you--"

"I have an idea. How about you write how you write, and I write how I write," the new guy says, still not looking up from his computer (oh, and still TYPING BACKWARDS, like a SPACE ALIEN.) It's almost hypnotizing, the way he writes one sentence and then laboriously uses the arrow keys to move the cursor up and back to start the one after that. Or before it. It makes Lois' head hurt.

"How about you give me advice when you have three Kerth Awards," Lois says, poking him with one finger, right in the back.

This finally gets him to turn around. "I'm not telling you how to write, you're telling me how to write! Do you mind?"

"Touchy, touchy!" Lois said, retreating back to her desk. Although now that she thinks about it, there are times the new guy's way could be useful. Imagine having a partner who wrote from the end while you wrote from the beginning. You could finish a story in half the time! Not that she needs a partner, or wants a partner, and if she did-- ha-- it wouldn't be Clark Kent. "That reminds me," she says, "Jimmy, is 'weirdo' in the Planet's style guide? In text, I mean, not in a quote."

"Uh... you want me to actually check on that?" Jimmy asks, looking back and forth between her and Clark.

"I do," Lois nods, enjoying the way that Clark was pointedly ignoring her. This is not going to get old. She gets up again, fascinated, and puts her hand on the back of his chair, watching him type, steady as a metronome. "How do you keep it all straight in your head?"

"It's same story backwards and forwards," Clark says, flatly, like it was totally obvious.

"That's exactly the tone of voice my dentist uses when he tells me the moon landings were faked," Lois says, and Clark finally lifts his head, meeting her eyes inquiringly. "So, I haven't had a cavity in four years," Lois shrugs, and Clark actually laughs. Lois raises her eyebrows, impressed. Is there finally going to be someone in the newsroom who actually gets her jokes?

Maybe she shouldn't try to push this guy too far away.

"You know, I've been reading your old work," she says idly, coming around to lean against the side of Clark's desk. "You had some good editors."

"Yup, I've been lucky," Clark says agreeably. And just a little smugly: like he knows he's wrong-footing her, just by being agreeable. She wanted him to argue, so she could smack him down, but he's doing that conversational judo thing again, just a little bit too nice. Not giving you anything to get a grip on. It makes Lois suspicious. Nobody is that nice. And nobody is that lucky. Clark hadn't just been pointed in the right direction; he'd had a good eye. He'd found those leads and those angles himself, over and over, in big cities and podunk towns, in Kuching, Malaysia and Kelowna, British Columbia and, in what was apparently a real place, swear to god, no kidding-- Smallville, Kansas.

"You probably have. But you also have a way of looking at stories," Lois says, "that I wouldn't have expected."

"Oh?"

Typing backwards again. So annoying. That's going to get so annoying. Lois leans over, close, but Clark doesn't twitch, doesn't give anything up. Some people are mighty rivers or choppy oceans; Clark is a still, lazy pool, clear as a mirror. You could lob rocks in it all day and get nothing but a dull plop. Six inches deep or six miles: how can you tell? Well, Lois has a lot of rocks and not a lot else to do today except figure out her new co-worker. "What I can't tell is whether you're good or whether you just look good."

"You think I look good?" Clark leans back in his chair, giving her That Grin. It's infuriating to even imagine the kind of hopeless woman who would think that smug, cornfed, small-town high-school football-champ grin was cute. Just infuriating.

"I mean your work, new kid. And like I said, there's a difference between actual-good and looks-good. There's a thin line between faux depth and real understanding. You'd be surprised how long you can skate on cliche."

"Are you saying you can't tell the difference?"

"I liked your obituaries," Lois admits. Less than grudgingly. Graciously. As a mentor to a mentee, graciously. "I started in obituaries."

"Didn't last. Too snide?" Clark says lightly, and Lois frowns. That had been it exactly. Who's been telling the new guy all the old gossip? She gets it now-- people reading obituaries don't want to read the equivalent of a classy foodie's review of Ralph's Pagoda. Mean obituaries are oldschool: you load them with euphemisms like "irrepressible ladies' man," meaning "disgusting creep," and you know that the people who knew will be in the know. The new school of obituary writing (like Clark's obituaries) are about recognizing the value in every human being, not papering over flaws. Bearing witness to weakness, not excusing it but not taking the opportunity for a jab, either. Well, if you can sell sincerity, you can sell anything.

"It's easy to take some small town Joe and tell a heartwarming, beautiful story about their life, telling secrets no one knew when they were alive. Try a famous person everyone knows-- try surprising people with a new angle on someone they've seen every day of their lives." Lois drawls. "It's harder."

"You can send a Michelin reviewer to breakfast at the International House of Pancakes, and it might be fun to read what he-- or she-- produces," Clark says, frowning at his computer screen. "But the review might just say more about the critic than it does about the pancakes."

"Thank you, Forrest Gump the Second," Lois rolls her eyes as Clark types on and on like a player piano. Look at the work ethic on this guy! Lois looks around for someone else to witness what she's seeing, but no one ever seems to hang around her desk much. She makes a face at him, since he's not looking at her anyway. "You'll be a great dad someday. I can already hear the lectures."

Clark's typing actually skips a beat: startled, or weirdly touched? Which one? Does it matter? Weirdo! Where is Jimmy anyway with that style guide check?

"So tell me when you're done," Lois offers. "I'll read it over for you before you send it up to Perry."

Clark looks suspicious. Lois frowns; is she really so awful? She can be nice sometimes! As long as this guy doesn't rest on his laurels, as long as he works hard (but not too hard), she isn't going to have a problem with him. "Hey, you work for the Planet, I work for the Planet. It's not just a job," she tries explaining. "We're a team. Some of us are senior-year quarterbacks and some of us are... water boys, maybe," she says, and Clark snorts, shaking his head. "But we're all on the same team, okay? We're all part of something bigger than just our own individual selves."

"Okay," Clark says, nodding. "Okay." She can't tell if he honestly understands, or if he's just humoring her.

"Good," Lois says, and punches him in the shoulder. Not as hard as she could have. Still, ow. She forgot about those muscles. She absolutely refuses to rub her stinging knuckles, putting her hand flat down on the desk instead. Leaning close and in, she puts her face about three inches from his face. Ugh, his skin is disgustingly good. Must be that farm boy lifestyle. "One more thing," she says, not letting herself get distracted by the backwards typing. (She is going to let it go. She is above it. Live and let live. And also, if he's going to mess with her head, she can mess with his head, too.) "Hey, new kid?"

"Yes, Lois?" the new guy says, FINALLY taking his hands off the keyboard and looking into her eyes.

Lois grins. "Welcome to the team. I think we're going to get along just fine."